Despite continuing improvements in the treatment and prevention of HIV and AIDS in New York state, local and state officials are still concerned about people's lack of awareness about the disease.
As of December 2011, nearly 131,000 New Yorkers were living with HIV or AIDS. While the burden of HIV is heaviest in New York City, 21 percent of people living with diagnosed HIV infection lived outside the five boroughs at the time of diagnosis.
"People are using the prevention options out there, but as for the awareness part, there is still much to be done," said Fabrizia Rodriguez, director of the Community Development Initiative at Centro Civico in Amsterdam. "Everyone thinks the city has the most of it, but that's only because they have the most people. We have just as many people who are HIV positive out here, but it's less of a percentage because we have less of a population."
The number of HIV and AIDS diagnoses and the number of deaths among AIDS patients declined statewide from 2001 to 2011, according to state Health Department data.
In 2001, 6,736 people were diagnosed with HIV and 6,562 were diagnosed with AIDS. A total of 2,982 patients died that year.
In 2011, 3,732 people were diagnosed with HIV and 2,683 were diagnosed with AIDS. A total of 1,676 patients died that year, the data show.
In Fulton and Montgomery counties, the number of people diagnosed with AIDS or HIV has ranged from zero to four each year from 2001 to 2011. Fourteen AIDS patients in Montgomery County died during the period. Five AIDS patients in Fulton County died over the same period. There were no deaths among people with AIDS in Fulton County from 2009 to 2011. Data for 2012 and 2013 were unavailable.
"More than 197,000 New Yorkers have been diagnosed with AIDS, and more than 130,000 individuals in the state are currently living with HIV/AIDS," state Health Commissioner Nirav R. Shah said in a December news release.
HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, causes AIDS, which is a disease that weakens the immune system.
According to the state Department of Health, since 1986, Montgomery County has had 82 reported cases of AIDS, while Fulton County has had 57 cases within the same time period. There are 34 known cases of people living with HIV and 34 known cases of people living with AIDS in Fulton County, for a total of 68.
In Montgomery County, currently there are 33 people living with HIV while 34 people are living with AIDS. In total, there are 67 known cases of people living with HIV or AIDS within the county.
There were an estimated 3,400 new diagnoses of infection in 2012 in the state, according to the state Department of Health.
According to figures showing the number of living cases by current age, HIV/AIDS should no longer be thought of as a young person's disease. While the majority of HIV diagnoses occur before age 40, 77 percent of people living with diagnosed HIV infection are over age 40 and 45 percent are age 50 or older.
"Although statistically speaking, prevalence rates are very low as compared to other parts of the state, the question of how many people who did not test and are currently living with HIV/AIDS always remains," said Fulton County Public Health Director Irina Gelman.
She said people still need to remain aware of HIV as an issue and said getting tested "should be part of your routine health care."
Gelman was recently appointed as the new director after previously working in Brooklyn, where the disease is more prevalent, and said several trends to spread the word there can be used here as well.
"Social media and existing social network resources such as Facebook are highly cost-effective and provide the ideal forum that may serve as a viable platform for disseminating important Public Health information within a very accessible framework," she said. "It is important to note that our community remains a major ally in combating new transmissions. Since knowledge is power, it is extremely important to disseminate accurate information regarding HIV/AIDS through all possible channels including community centers, educational facilities and existing social support networks."
The Red Ribbon Partnership, an AIDS leadership coalition for Fulton and Montgomery counties whose lead organization is Centro Civico, has been working to encourage testing. Centro Civico is also home to the statewide HIV hotline in Spanish.
Community Development Initiative, a branch of Centro Civico, has received grants from the AIDS Institute of the state Department of Health to fund educational and preventive measures for the community.
Every year, the organization hosts a World AIDS Day breakfast to bring awareness of the disease, and has been doing so annually since 1987.
Centro Civico offers programs such as the syringe exchange, which provides free, clean needles to those who engage in injection drug use and has helped cut down the spread, but the biggest issue still present is general awareness of the disease, officials said.
According to the state Department of Health, there has been a reduction in AIDS diagnoses among injection drug users by 96 percent in the state since 1993.
Rodriguez said programs like Project Needle Smart and the syringe exchange have helped reduce the spread locally but the disease still spreads through sexual activity.
The largest group of people who suffer from the disease is men who have sex with men, which programs like the syringe exchange can do little to help, but she said Centro Civico is trying to raise awareness.
The improvements in the medicine prescribed to those infected has also helped curb both the progression from HIV to AIDS and the spread of the disease to others.
"The effect of antiretroviral treatment in preventing progression to AIDS, thereby and improving and saving lives, has long been known," said Marci Natale, deputy director of public affairs for the New York State Department of Health. "The use of antiretrovirals for HIV-negative persons to remain uninfected has been approved. Recent science has shown that treatment of HIV-positive individuals is effective in preventing transmission to others. A 2011 study showed that effective treatment of a person living with HIV reduced the risk of transmission to partners by 96 percent, on par with a vaccine."
HIV testing is confidential and is prevalent within the area. Tests are available at Planned Parenthood locations in Amsterdam and Johnstown, while the Fulton County public health department offers the test and literature containing information about the disease as well.
According to Planned Parenthood, in 2013, the Amsterdam center provided HIV testing to 359 people, while the Johnstown facility tested 381.
Free HIV testing at the Fulton County Public Health Department clinic can be scheduled by calling 7365720. Confidential testing is also available through personal physicians as well as the Nathan Littauer Hospital Primary Care Clinic.
More on general education, information and referral information may be accessed through the AIDS Council of Northeastern NY Hotline, CDC National HIV/AIDS Hotline and the AIDS Institute.